Why opportunity cost may be a 'divisive rhetorical device', rather than a 'royal flush' for education debates

TES Professional

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The concept of “opportunity cost’ (OC) has to be banished from education debate, not least because teachers don’t really understand it, according to a teacher and academic.

James Mannion, lead professional for science at Varndean School in Brighton and a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, says that OC – a term used in economics that suggests that one way of doing something is a more effective use of resources than another – is being used increasingly in education.

“Many in education have seized upon the term; you are likely to have heard it mentioned after an observation, in a staff meeting or on Twitter,” he writes in the 22 May issue of TES. “But look closely at OC and you find it’s not the royal flush for education debates that people make out. Worse, it could actually be damaging.”

His main issue with its use is that if you are truly to insist on using an OC argument then you have to apply it to everything and that is not practical.

“Educationalist Ted Wragg once estimated that teachers make more than 1,000 evaluative decisions on any given school day; others claim it is more than 3,000.

“Attempting to carry out a systematic cost-benefit analysis for even a fraction of those decisions would clearly be absurd,” he writes. “What’s more, there would be a serious OC associated with spending so much time carrying out OC analyses. You would disappear into a hole of your own making.”

He also argues that basing arguments on “opportunity cost” reduces your repertoire of teaching tools and stunts invention and progression.

And lastly, he says that teachers do not fully understand what opportunity cost is, and tend to hijack it for ideological arguments.

The New York Times recently reported that most economists don’t really understand OC. If this is true of economists, it is even truer of teachers. While the language of OC might masquerade as objective evaluation, in reality, it should be seen as a divisive rhetorical device that is used to apply a binary yes/no filter to a range of complex, nuanced contexts,” he writes.

He concludes: “The opportunity cost of disregarding useful strategies on the basis of OC is vast. By the very logic of OC, teachers should refrain from using this simplistic and unhelpful term.”

To read the full story, get the 22 May edition of TES on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents. 


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